On Friday, I wrote an item ("The 3-Word Phrase That Signals Obama's Intentions on Taxes") about how a number of Democrats on the Hill were relieved to hear President Obama say, in his recent budget speech, that it was necessary to raise taxes on "millionaires and billionaires"--relieved because many of them worried he had drifted too far to the right, and might no longer be committed to tax increases on the wealthy as a way to trim the national debt. Hearing Obama invoke "millionaires and billionaires" was understood by these Democrats to be a signal (or a dog-whistle, if you prefer) that he wasn't backing down: polls show that the public is most receptive to raising taxes when the issue is framed this way, so Obama was signaling that he means business. That doesn't guarantee he'll follow through; he used the phrase plenty last year, and still signed a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans (which he'd opposed) and everyone else (which he'd supported). But it's a clear sign of where he stands today. And the phrase, along with all the apprehension surrounding it, provides an interesting glimpse at the tensions between Democrats over raising taxes.
Judging from the comments and emails that piled up over the weekend, most people didn't read the item that way. In fact, I can draw two conclusions: First, a lot of people spent Easter weekend in a spirit other than that of Christian fellowship and goodwill toward men. Second, a lot of them seem to think that they're the ones being persecuted, that by seeking to increase taxes on the wealthy Obama is engaging in--gasp!--"class warfare." I've always loved that phrase because it's such potent hyperbole, the product of expensive focus grouping and crafty political wordsmithery as surely as is the phrase "millionaires and billionaires," except "class warfare" has that extra dimension of apocalyptic consequence and the undertone of victimization that work so well together even though they shouldn't, like sweet-and-sour soup.
But I gather few others share my connoisseur's appreciation. Most of my correspondents appear to take the phrase literally and believe they are being unfairly and maliciously attacked. I'd guess that by and large they're not millionaires or billionaires themselves. Instead, most display the same anguished indignation that got University of Chicago professor Todd Henderson into such trouble after he worked himself into a lather about how unfair it was that he--a mere university professor scraping by on an income of several hundred thousand dollars a year--might be expected to chip in a bit more. Here's a representative example from my in box:
As a journalist, why don't you ask the obvious question about what makes a married couple earning $250,000 per year a millionaire or a billionaire?
Is it that political demagoguery from a Democrat is more palatable than from a Republican?
Obama is being cynical and dishonest and the mainstream political press is his willing accomplice.
This sort of thinking always makes me want to haul out my fainting couch. Because crying "demagoguery" and "class warfare," and really meaning it, is just silly.
Politics is and always has been a competition between different classes and interest groups for finite government resources. Everybody harnesses their best argument for growing or defending their slice of the pie, whether it's "millionaires and billionaires" or "welfare queens." And it's worth noting that millionaires and billionaires have fared particularly well relative to other groups. According to the IRS, the average federal income tax rate for the richest Americans dropped from 26 percent in 1992 to 17 percent in 2007, the most recent data available. So if you're inclined to think in terms of "warfare," which I'm not, it's clear who's been winning the war.
To address the question above, married couples who make $250,000 a year or more--the line at which Obama would raise taxes--are not millionaires or billionaires. (I'm no math whiz, but I'd have thought this obvious.) By any reasonable definition, though, they're still rich: income-wise, they rank in the top 2.5 percent of American households. Maybe it's residual Easter spirit, but I suppose that, if pressed, I could muster a smidgen more sympathy for the Todd Hendersons of the world than for the yacht owners and mansion-dwellers. But they're still far better off than most people, so it's hard to feel bad for them.
Here's the other thing: While the type of people writing in reflexively view any prospective increase in their tax rates as "class warfare," they don't apply that label to other attempts to reapportion resources--even radical ones, like Paul Ryan's budget, which is now the official position of House Republicans. If Obama's desire to nudge up tax rates on the wealthy is class warfare against the rich, then surely Paul Ryan's plan to shift the burden of growing healthcare costs from government to citizens by privatizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid is class warfare against the poor and middle class. Strange that none of my correspondents pointed this out!
But as I said, I think the whole thing is silly. Let's stop hyperventilating about "class warfare" and call it by its proper name: politics.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run severalstories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to twonew books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, aneven-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.
There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.